The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel

by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz

Published by Princeton Architectural Press

144 pages plus box, 2002


Buy it online




The Art of Love

Reviewed by David Middleton


The very idea of his next review had his hands trembling uneasily over the keyboard. That and the thought of his editor, a leggy brunette whom he had his eye on for some time now. If only she would notice him. But she was well above him and how could he possibly think that a woman of her stature would even consider a lowly art and culture editor in any way approaching romantic.

How many sleepless nights had he spent tossing in his lonely bed, thoughts of her galloping through his feverish brain, trying to think of the one review that would impress her enough that she would finally turn her affections toward him? How many times had he tried to impress her with his feeble prose, his inadequate attempts at wit and intellectualism? How many times had he risked making a fool of himself in order to have her just notice him? He knew he was not good enough for her and he knew that she was big Trouble with a capital "T."

He would leave flowers and anonymous notes on her desk, sure that her sharp editorial eye would recognize his... um, his... ahem, mmm... his...

Sheesh. Formula or not these things are harder to write than many people think.

It is not easy to write a romance novel. At least, not as easy as it might look. Still every year more romance titles outsell every other literary genre. (A frightening thought for some.) And a lot of people, me included, think that the romance novel -- in fact the whole romance genre in general -- is not "real" literature. Tens of thousands of titles are cranked out every year, several of them by the same author under as many pseudonyms. This leaves a skeptic like me scratching my head and thinking that there may be something to this whole thing. Can that many people -- and there are millions of them every year who purchase the books and support the genre -- possibly be wrong?

"The first English-language, mass-market paperback was indeed a romance, Maleshka by Ann S. Stephens, published in June 1860 by Erastus and Irwin Beadle, pioneers of the dime novel. The success of this romantic tale (it sold sixty-five thousand copies within a few months of publication) of an Indian princess was such that it helped launch a whole new genre in publishing." As Jennifer McKnight-Trontz writes in her introduction to The Look of Love: The Art of the Romance Novel. And in its wake several an illustrator's lucrative career was launched, not to mention the brief fame and fortune of a certain male model -- oh, he of the flowing hair and bulging pecs -- enjoyed.

This is really what The Look of Love is all about. No, no: not Fabio and his smoldering gaze and overzealous mane of golden hair. It's about the covers. The sometimes lurid art that graced the front of the romance novel. McKnight-Trontz gathers together some of the finest examples from several of the best illustrators and sees them through the eyes of, not necessarily a romance novel lover, but certainly of a lover of a form of pop art that swayed and made swoon many a heart.

For many years it was the "bodice ripper" cover that people had sport with: the boy and girl of the story in a romantic clinch, he with his shirt half off and she, her diaphanous blouse barely concealing her heaving milky bosom. But it was not always this way. For the some of the publishers, early cover art was subdued and chaste with no signs that the lovers were even lovers. The interiors were similar with no premarital sex and barely a suggestion of passion. As suggested by titles such as White Fawn, The Whole Heart, Ever After, Wedding Song and Kind Are Her Answers. Others, more suited to, or tuned into, a more ribald audience sported such titles as Lucifer's Angel, Call Her Savage, The Hard-Boiled Virgin, The Barbarian Lover and Hellcat. But as readers -- and society's -- tastes changed, so too did the romance novel. Stories became more daring and publishers felt that in order to compete against other romance titles and other genres, something a bit more racy had to be put on the bookshelves. So followed the covers. More clinches, more suggestive poses and looks of passion and longing. And definitely more cleavage; from members of both sexes.

The Look of Love doesn't cover the entire spectrum of the genre and McKnight-Trontz does an excellent job of selecting some truly fine examples from the early 1930s to the late-70s when the art of the romance novel still had enough diversity to tell them apart. She wisely shies away from later romance covers with the singular exception of the 1987 Avon title Hearts Aflame, which pretty much sums up just about every cover printed since that time featuring lovers in a passionate embrace. He: dark and handsome with roguish long hair (and, yes, it is Fabio -- he appeared on over 300 covers) She: pale and beautiful, hair whipped into a blond froth by the wind, looking longingly up into his loving and reassuring eyes.

The Look of Love also takes us through a brief but illuminating history of the romance novel, the artists whose talents are featured throughout the book and the publishing industry that has kept it alive for nearly 100 years.

And if you can't judge these books by their covers then you sure can judge them by some of the silly titles they came up with: The Manatee (is he a man or a cetacean?), The Moon's Our Home (sure it's a romantic place, but better bring extra breathing apparatus), Kiss of the Devil (a.k.a.: I've Got Lip Balm Aplenty). And of course as McKnight-Trontz points out in the chapter "Loves of a Nurse" there is the whole "nurse" series: Everglades Nurse, Camp Nurse, Settlement Nurse, Door to Door Nurse, Jungle Nurse, Desert Nurse, Dude Ranch Nurse and my favorite Hootenanny Nurse (nice to see she does something with her free time).

More fun than actually reading a romance novel -- for me, anyway -- The Look of Love is a delightful glance back in time to what made (some of) our little hearts go pitter-patter. Jennifer McKnight-Trontz is also the author of the delightful The Good Citizen's Handbook: A Guide to Proper Behavior and with Alex Steinweiss, For the Record: The Life and Work of Alex Steinweiss. | February 2002


David Middleton is the art and culture editor of January Magazine. The last romance novel he tried to read gave him a serious case of the heebie jeebies.